Airlines charging travelers for more extras on flights
July 29, 2009
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  • Lisa Nicita

    March 9, 2008

    Airline travel is beginning to resemble a menu at a fancy steakhouse.

    Everything is a la carte.

    Airlines are charging extra for everything from meals to music. Baggage is the latest to be hit with a fee. Starting in May, many passengers on US Airways and United Airlines will have to pay $25, each way, to check a second bag. advertisement

    Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior editor at Travelocity, said she’d be shocked if other airlines don’t follow suit.

    “If there’s no significant backlash from customers, other airlines start to follow,” Shaw Brown said.

    Airline fees have slowly crept up on the traveler in recent years.

    Many airlines already charge $2 per bag for curbside check-in. Anything more than a bag of peanuts generally costs a few bucks, as do headphones to hear in-flight entertainment.

    United charges for seats with extra leg room. It costs passengers $5 extra to book a flight on US Airways’ Web site. Northwest charges $25 for certain passengers to fly standby. Southwest offers priority boarding to its business-select passengers, for a fee.

    Skybus, a bare-bones airline that does not fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, charges for everything, including blankets and sodas.

    To top it off, some airlines – including Frontier, Aloha, JetBlue and AirTran – have adopted a “cashless cabin” policy, meaning they accept only debit or credit cards for in-flight purchases. Other airlines are testing the policy.

    The fees will greet travelers as they embark in the coming days and weeks on spring-break getaways.

    A representative for Sky Harbor International Airport said the airport sees about 100,000 passengers on an average day. In March, that number increases to 110,000 to 115,000 a day because of spring break, spring training and the departure of winter visitors.

    Last March was 2007’s busiest month for Sky Harbor. Nearly 3.9 million travelers passed through the airport.

    With that many travelers, the fees are sure to add up for the airlines.

    Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC’s Today Show, understands why discount carriers charge for extras, but he thinks premium carriers like United and US Airways are stepping over the line.

    “The overall problem here is the airlines nickel-and-diming us, looking at every possible aspect of our travel as a revenue center,” Greenberg said by phone from Las Vegas. “It’s one thing if an airline says we’re low-cost and you’re going to pay for everything short of breathing. At least you know going in. But an airline that brands itself as a premium legacy carrier should be ashamed of itself.”

    Passengers aren’t thrilled with the new fees.

    Ina Grunwald, 76, of Spokane, Wash., checked two bags on her recent flight to Phoenix for a monthlong stay. If she would have been charged extra for a second bag, Grunwald said, she would have left some things at home.

    “They’ll get us one way or another,” she said.

    Jim Wladyka, 24, of Newark, N.J., came to Phoenix to participate in spring training with the Texas Rangers. He had to pack for a month.

    He hoisted suitcases the size and color of body bags off the luggage carousel. Wladyka didn’t pay for his ticket, but if he had and had faced extra charges for his bags, he would have tried to pack differently.

    “I think they’re going to hurt themselves,” he said of the airlines. “People are coming for more than a couple of days.”

    The airlines see it differently.

    On Feb. 26, US Airways said it would begin charging $25 each way for passengers to check a second bag. A third bag will cost $100. The airline’s most-frequent fliers, active-duty military personnel, employees and those with medical devices such as wheelchairs and walkers are exempt.

    The change followed a similar announcement by United a few weeks earlier. The new fees go into effect May 5 for both airlines.

    The move to charge for a second bag came after Southwest decided in late January to begin charging for a third bag. A representative for the discount carrier said the move will help ease the load on the ramp agents and shorten the turnaround time for its planes.

    US Airways estimates that the baggage fee will result in $75 million in new revenue. US Airways executives said the fee is designed to help mitigate rising costs, especially fuel.

    United predicts the baggage fee will generate more than $100 million a year. In a press release, the carrier said the move allows it to continue to offer competitive fares and flexibility.

    Paul Gann, 34, of Winthrop, Wash., envisions jam-packed overhead bins. He thinks some people will try to carry on more bags than they might have in the past, before the fees for checked baggage went into effect.

    “The carry-on situation is going to be terrible,” he said, bogged down by two suitcases and a bag of golf clubs flung over his back. “I would probably fly a different airline.”

    Even if he does, he’ll probably be paying extra for something. The a la carte approach has grown more prevalent as low-cost carriers take more market share from longtime carriers like American Airlines.

    Shaw Brown sees the trend growing. She said airlines, hard hit by the rising cost of fuel, are looking at a la carte pricing in order to stay competitive.

    “The only thing you can do is modify your behavior to get around these costs,” she said.

    There’s no getting around the cost of a ticket. Shaw Brown said domestic fares for the spring-break period are up 15 percent this year compared with last year. That’s on top of the taxes, security fees and facility charges tacked onto each domestic ticket.

    Skybus is the ultimate no-frills airline. The discount startup, covering California, the Midwest and East Coast, offers 10 seats for $10 each on every flight.

    Every service and amenity costs extra.

    “Skybus is doing very well,” Shaw Brown said. “This tells me if you can keep that base fare down, people will buy it.”

    Only airline officials know what amenity will be next on their a la carte radar. Greenberg, author of The Complete Travel Detective Bible, laughed when he recalled a TV interview he did with the chairman of a major U.S. carrier.

    Greenberg asked him to promise that he had no plans to install pay toilets on planes. The executive said he had no plans. Yet.

    Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8546.

    Date: 2008-03-09